Opinion Columns & Blogs

Chuck Alhem: California dairies are committed to sustainability

Dairy cow manure solids are separated before going into the bio digester at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto in August.
Dairy cow manure solids are separated before going into the bio digester at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto in August. Modesto Bee file

A recent op-ed in The Bee focused on the heightened attention that short-lived climate pollutants, including methane, are now receiving in regard to climate change, and on the effort that California is making to curtail these emissions.

While the author rightly noted that this is an important endeavor, making dairy farmers in the San Joaquin Valley a prime target of his criticism for these emissions is misplaced.

It’s hardly news that cows and manure produce methane, an important greenhouse gas. But the author’s contention that dairies have “failed to reduce (methane) emissions voluntarily” simply isn’t true. Since the end of World War II, dairy farmers in California and the rest of the nation have reduced the overall carbon “hoofprint” of a glass of milk by 63 percent (and it also takes about two-thirds less water today for each glass of milk produced in California).

Yet there is an exciting opportunity to do more – not only to capture methane from dairies using anaerobic digesters, but to turn it into a clean transportation fuel that could partially replace diesel and reduce pollution from heavy-duty trucks traveling our busy California highways. That would help clean the Valley’s air and reduce the state’s carbon footprint. And we agree with the author’s suggestion that “policymakers should use financial incentives to help farmers and ranchers to make this transition.”

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols also envisions significant biomethane potential as well. In her testimony before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee last month, she stressed the need to “unlock a torrent of investment that would create new industries and markets for clean technologies and bring billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the Central Valley and rural California.”

Dairy digesters not only allow for the production of biogas, but can decrease odors and improve water quality. In addition, the solid byproduct produced by the anaerobic digesters, known as digestate, can be mixed with added nutrients to create compost, or can be used alone as a soil amendment to aid in improving soil quality, help prevent runoff, retain surface water and improve plant growth.

California dairy organizations have been working closely with CARB and the Department of Food and Agriculture on a strategic plan to build and operate more dairy biogas digesters to capture methane and convert it to electricity or fuel, and to use digestate for healthier soils.

Digesters provide great “bang for the buck” for greenhouse reduction, so the draft strategic plan recommends deploying them on as many as several hundred dairies in the state, with an initial investment of $500 million over the next five years. Now the governor and Legislature need to step up and provide this critical investment incentive so that the actual means to reduce short-lived climate pollutants matches the state’s ambitious goals.

In contrast, if dairies in California are regulated under the state’s cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or otherwise mandated to reduce these emissions as some have proposed, the likely result will be a loss of jobs and commerce in an industry that contributes $21 billion and 189,000 jobs annually to the state’s economy.

Numerous dairy operations have already moved to other states, and climate regulations or mandates would no doubt spur this exodus to non-regulated states. Under that scenario, Valley residents lose twice. We lose jobs and the ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, our dairy farms emit about 45 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of milk produced compared to the global average.

Through wider adoption of existing best practices, such as those used here in the Valley, dairy farmers around the world can begin achieving the greater production efficiencies that California farming families have developed over generations and continue to develop for a sustainable future.

Chuck Alhem is the chairman of Dairy Cares, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that strives to ensure the long-term sustainability of California’s farming families through strong environmental stewardship and responsible animal care.